Gentile Impurity in the Bible
Any discussion of the texts and ideas of ancient Judaism must begin with the texts and ideas of the Hebrew Bible. In this chapter, I undertake a thorough review of the biblical uses of impurity terminology in constructing and policing Israelite identity in opposition to impure others (Gentiles). After discussing various biblical views on the relationship of Gentiles to ritual impurity, moral impurity, and genealogical impurity, I consider several related questions: First, what is the rationale for restrictions on Gentile entry into sacred precincts, if not ritual purity? Second, if Gentiles are exempt from the Israelite system of ritual impurity, why are they ritually defiled by corpses and the consumption of animal carcasses? Third, are idols, idolatry, and Gentile lands impure, and if so, in what way?
There are, of course, many competing views on the dates of various biblical sources — both relative and absolute — and it is not within the scope of this work to adjudicate such debates. Although some of my arguments will assume, following Jacob Milgrom, that the Priestly strand (P) and the Holiness Code (H) are distinct sources with preexilic roots and that the final form of H postdates the bulk of P, the central argument made here about the attribution of various types of impurity to Gentiles in different biblical texts does not turn on these assumptions. 1 Moreover, although several of my observations about biblical notions of Gentile impurity will challenge commonly held views, my primary goal is not to resolve problems in contemporary biblical studies. Rather, my goal in this chapter is to lay a foundation for the detailed study of Gentile impurities in Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism that will be presented in subsequent chapters.
In the past century and a half, leading scholars have advanced the view that in biblical times Gentiles were considered to be ritually impure. According to Schürer (1891, 2:54), this impurity arose from a failure to observe the biblical laws of ritual purity. According